Accelerating to Nowhere
Apr. 27, 2023. 9 min. read.
We are using technology more and more for virtual purposes, not real ones. If we neglect the physical world, what kind of future will that lead us to?
Accelerating To Nowhere
In an excellent conversation right here on Mindplex, Cory Doctorow went on a bit of a rant about how there were more changes over the 20th century leading up to the digital revolution than in this virtualized century. It’s worth sharing most of it: “mid century America, from post-war to 1980, is probably the most dynamic era in industrial history. In terms of total ground covered, we’re talking about a period that went from literal horse drawn carriages as a standard mode of transportation for a significant fraction of Americans to rocket ships… the number of changes you had to absorb from cradle to grave over that period are far more significant than the ones we’ve had now… someone born, like me, in 1971, has had to deal with computers getting faster and more ubiquitous, but not the invention of computers per se…. not the invention of telecommunications per se…”
Accelerationists, check under the pedal. It may be bricked. (ed: R.U. Sirius uses the term accelerationist to mean those wishing to intensify technological change and not specifically to the neoreactionary use of the term.)
Accelerating Into Digital Delirium
The point is well taken.
I would only counter that, in a sense, Cory is comparing oranges to apples (or Apples, if you prefer). The 21st century is seeing a particular type of extreme acceleration: an acceleration out of physicality into nonphysical virtual space. And as the result of a number of factors, not least of which are already distorted economic and political cultures — this appears to be an acceleration towards something of a mass psychotic break with reality. From people shooting a lot of people at once as a lifestyle choice (over the last few days, shooting anyone that unexpectedly enters your personal space has become trendy), to the predations of the followers of the cult of QAnon, the evidence is all around us, particularly in the hypermediated hot zone that is the USA.
On Twitter, Chris Stein reports on an example of this confusion: “Today I saw a guy with two hundred and eighty thousand followers promoting a story about McDonald’s in the UK serving dead babies and there were numerous comments that were like ‘yeah! Criminal! We are outraged! This is bad’” A few days ago Vice reported that “someone is selling computer generated swatting services.” Automated terror as an amusement for some young males. The very fact that swatting seems like a fun game to some young people is one of the myriad examples of the degree to which people today are buffered from physicality by mediation… divorced from the consequences of their actions. Taken alone, these examples may not strike the reader as being as impactful as, say, the twentieth century killing fields of Cambodia. But I would aver that the plague of bad weird actions caused by digital interference in our ability to separate reality from virtuality are the first signs of a fast spreading mass delirium.
In a 1991 MONDO 2000 interview, the late avant-garde novelist Kathy Acker said: “When reality—the meanings associated with reality—is up for grabs, then the body itself becomes the only thing you can return to.” Today, virtuality assaults that body as if it were its most potent appendage.
A Kind Of Social Singularity
Vernor Vinge’s original concept of the Singularity suggested that we can’t understand or predict who (or what) we will be, or what life — our societies, psychologies, politics, technologies etc. — will be beyond the point when we develop smarter-than-human AIs. It would, according to Vinge, all be a kind of unimaginable blank slate. My less extravagant thought is that we have induced a kind of Social Singularity when we herded billions of humans onto the net.
Giving everyone access to the means of global communication both as communicator and receiver has shattered consensus realities into individual and small-group reality tunnels. From this point on, we can no longer comprehend or predict what the cognitive and sociopolitical results will be. Of course, unlike in Vinge’s Singularity, this Social Singularity doesn’t replace humans as the main actors in our history.
On The Other Hand
I’ll confess that I may be going a bit overboard in saying that a Social Singularity can be caused by just the presence of billions of people on the internet. At the end of the ‘90s, I was already saying it was impossible to get people to focus on the same narrative. Then 9/11 happened. One event decidedly brought people into the same narrative and, it must be said, a harmful consensus was generated that led to the Patriot Act, the American torture gulags and the preposterous invasion of Iraq. There are good things and bad things about smashing consensus reality.
Perhaps climate breakdown could refocus us on a common narrative, but there are greater financial interests in sowing confusion about blame and solutions there than there was after 9/11 (although the Iraq invasion was a money spinner for companies owned by friends and even members of the George W. Bush administration).
Money For Nothing & Your Clicks For Free
In his essay ‘Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit’, the anarchist writer and philosopher David Graeber wrote about how the end of bipolar competition between the US and the USSR might have been instrumental in changing the priorities of the US. Specifically, we backed off the Space Race – but we abandoned most other big physical/material projects too. (The culture theorist Arthur Kroker referred to the period after the fall of the Soviet Bloc as “the recline of Western Civilization”). Graeber wrote “Where… are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? Even those inventions that seemed ready to emerge—like cloning or cryogenics.” Graeber goes on to note that we’re in “a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would.”